GLib Main Contexts

Summary

What is GMainContext?

GMainContext is a generalized implementation of an event loop, useful for implementing polled file I/O or event-based widget systems (such as GTK+). It is at the core of almost every GLib application. To understand GMainContext requires understanding poll() and polled I/O.

A GMainContext has a set of GSources which are ‘attached’ to it, each of which can be thought of as an expected event with an associated callback function which will be invoked when that event is received; or equivalently as a set of file descriptors (FDs) to check. An event could be a timeout or data being received on a socket, for example. One iteration of the event loop will:

  1. Prepare sources, determining if any of them are ready to dispatch immediately.

  2. Poll the sources, blocking the current thread until an event is received for one of the sources.

  3. Check which of the sources received an event (several could have).

  4. Dispatch callbacks from those sources.

This is explained very well in the GLib documentation.

At its core, GMainContext is just a poll() loop, with the preparation, check and dispatch stages of the loop corresponding to the normal preamble and postamble in a typical poll() loop implementation, such as listing 1 from this article. Typically, some complexity is needed in non-trivial poll()-using applications to track the lists of FDs which are being polled. Additionally, GMainContext adds a lot of useful functionality which vanilla poll() doesn’t support. Most importantly, it adds thread safety.

GMainContext is completely thread safe, meaning that a GSource can be created in one thread and attached to a GMainContext running in another thread. (See also: Threading.) A typical use for this might be to allow worker threads to control which sockets are being listened to by a GMainContext in a central I/O thread. Each GMainContext is ‘acquired’ by a thread for each iteration it’s put through. Other threads cannot iterate a GMainContext without acquiring it, which guarantees that a GSource and its FDs will only be polled by one thread at once (since each GSource is attached to at most one GMainContext). A GMainContext can be swapped between threads across iterations, but this is expensive.

GMainContext is used instead of poll() mostly for convenience, as it transparently handles dynamically managing the array of FDs to pass to poll(), especially when operating over multiple threads. This is done by encapsulating FDs in GSources, which decide whether those FDs should be passed to the poll() call on each ‘prepare’ stage of the main context iteration.

What is GMainLoop?

GMainLoop is essentially the following few lines of code, once reference counting and locking have been removed (from g_main_loop_run()):

loop->is_running = TRUE;
while (loop->is_running)
  {
    g_main_context_iteration (context, TRUE);
  }

Plus a fourth line in g_main_loop_quit() which sets loop->is_running = FALSE and which will cause the loop to terminate once the current main context iteration ends.

Hence, GMainLoop is a convenient, thread-safe way of running a GMainContext to process events until a desired exit condition is met, at which point g_main_loop_quit() should be called. Typically, in a UI program, this will be the user clicking ‘exit’. In a socket handling program, this might be the final socket closing.

It is important not to confuse main contexts with main loops. Main contexts do the bulk of the work: preparing source lists, waiting for events, and dispatching callbacks. A main loop simply iterates a context.

Default Contexts

One of the important features of GMainContext is its support for ‘default’ contexts. There are two levels of default context: the thread-default, and the global-default. The global-default (accessed using g_main_context_default()) is run by GTK+ when gtk_main() is called. It’s also used for timeouts (g_timeout_add()) and idle callbacks (g_idle_add()) — these won’t be dispatched unless the default context is running! (See: #implicit-use-of-the-global-default-main-context.)

Thread-default contexts are a later addition to GLib (since version 2.22), and are generally used for I/O operations which need to run and dispatch callbacks in a thread. By calling g_main_context_push_thread_default() before starting an I/O operation, the thread-default context is set and the I/O operation can add its sources to that context. The context can then be run in a new main loop in an I/O thread, causing the callbacks to be dispatched on that thread’s stack rather than on the stack of the thread running the global-default main context. This allows I/O operations to be run entirely in a separate thread without explicitly passing a specific GMainContext pointer around everywhere.

Conversely, by starting a long-running operation with a specific thread-default context set, the calling code can guarantee that the operation’s callbacks will be emitted in that context, even if the operation itself runs in a worker thread. This is the principle behind GTask: when a new GTask is created, it stores a reference to the current thread-default context, and dispatches its completion callback in that context, even if the task itself is run using g_task_run_in_thread().

For example, the code below will run a GTask which performs two writes in parallel from a thread. The callbacks for the writes will be dispatched in the worker thread, whereas the callback from the task as a whole will be dispatched in the interesting_context.

typedef struct {
  GMainLoop *main_loop;
  guint n_remaining;
} WriteData;

/* This is always called in the same thread as thread_cb() because
 * it’s always dispatched in the @worker_context. */
static void
write_cb (GObject      *source_object,
          GAsyncResult *result,
          gpointer      user_data)
{
  WriteData *data = user_data;
  GOutputStream *stream = G_OUTPUT_STREAM (source_object);
  GError *error = NULL;
  gssize len;

  /* Finish the write. */
  len = g_output_stream_write_finish (stream, result, &error);
  if (error != NULL)
    {
      g_error ("Error: %s", error->message);
      g_error_free (error);
    }

  /* Check whether all parallel operations have finished. */
  write_data->n_remaining--;

  if (write_data->n_remaining == 0)
    {
      g_main_loop_quit (write_data->main_loop);
    }
}

/* This is called in a new thread. */
static void
thread_cb (GTask        *task,
           gpointer      source_object,
           gpointer      task_data,
           GCancellable *cancellable)
{
  /* These streams come from somewhere else in the program: */
  GOutputStream *output_stream1, *output_stream;
  GMainContext *worker_context;
  GBytes *data;
  const guint8 *buf;
  gsize len;

  /* Set up a worker context for the writes’ callbacks. */
  worker_context = g_main_context_new ();
  g_main_context_push_thread_default (worker_context);

  /* Set up the writes. */
  write_data.n_remaining = 2;
  write_data.main_loop = g_main_loop_new (worker_context, FALSE);

  data = g_task_get_task_data (task);
  buf = g_bytes_get_data (data, &len);

  g_output_stream_write_async (output_stream1, buf, len,
                               G_PRIORITY_DEFAULT, NULL, write_cb,
                               &write_data);
  g_output_stream_write_async (output_stream2, buf, len,
                               G_PRIORITY_DEFAULT, NULL, write_cb,
                               &write_data);

  /* Run the main loop until both writes have finished. */
  g_main_loop_run (write_data.main_loop);
  g_task_return_boolean (task, TRUE);  /* ignore errors */

  g_main_loop_unref (write_data.main_loop);

  g_main_context_pop_thread_default (worker_context);
  g_main_context_unref (worker_context);
}

/* This can be called from any thread. Its @callback will always be
 * dispatched in the thread which currently owns
 * @interesting_context. */
void
parallel_writes_async (GBytes              *data,
                       GMainContext        *interesting_context,
                       GCancellable        *cancellable,
                       GAsyncReadyCallback  callback,
                       gpointer             user_data)
{
  GTask *task;

  g_main_context_push_thread_default (interesting_context);

  task = g_task_new (NULL, cancellable, callback, user_data);
  g_task_set_task_data (task, data,
                        (GDestroyNotify) g_bytes_unref);
  g_task_run_in_thread (task, thread_cb);
  g_object_unref (task);

  g_main_context_pop_thread_default (interesting_context);
}

Implicit Use of the Global-Default Main Context

Several functions implicitly add sources to the global-default main context. They should not be used in threaded code. Instead, use g_source_attach() with the GSource created by the replacement function from the table below.

Implicit use of the global-default main context means the callback functions are invoked in the main thread, typically resulting in work being brought back from a worker thread into the main thread.

Do not use

Use instead

g_timeout_add()

g_timeout_source_new()

g_idle_add()

g_idle_source_new()

g_child_watch_add()

g_child_watch_source_new()

So to delay some computation in a worker thread, use the following code:

static guint
schedule_computation (guint delay_seconds)
{
  GSource *source = NULL;
  GMainContext *context;
  guint id;

  /* Get the calling context. */
  context = g_main_context_get_thread_default ();

  source = g_timeout_source_new_seconds (delay_seconds);
  g_source_set_callback (source, do_computation, NULL, NULL);
  id = g_source_attach (source, context);
  g_source_unref (source);

  /* The ID can be used with the same @context to
   * cancel the scheduled computation if needed. */
  return id;
}

static void
do_computation (gpointer user_data)
{
  /* … */
}

Using GMainContext in a Library

At a high level, library code must not make changes to main contexts which could affect the execution of an application using the library, for example by changing when the application’s GSources are dispatched. There are various best practices which can be followed to aid this.

Never iterate a context created outside the library, including the global-default or thread-default contexts. Otherwise, GSources created in the application may be dispatched when the application is not expecting it, causing re-entrancy problems for the application code.

Always remove GSources from a main context before dropping the library’s last reference to the context, especially if it may have been exposed to the application (for example, as a thread-default). Otherwise the application may keep a reference to the main context and continue iterating it after the library has returned, potentially causing unexpected source dispatches in the library. This is equivalent to not assuming that dropping the library’s last reference to a main context will finalize that context.

If the library is designed to be used from multiple threads, or in a context-aware fashion, always document which context each callback will be dispatched in. For example, “callbacks will always be dispatched in the context which is the thread-default at the time of the object’s construction”. Developers using the library’s API need to know this information.

Use g_main_context_invoke() to ensure callbacks are dispatched in the right context. It’s much easier than manually using g_idle_source_new() to transfer work between contexts. (See: Ensuring Functions are Called in the Right Context.)

Libraries should never use g_main_context_default() (or, equivalently, pass NULL to a GMainContext-typed parameter). Always store and explicitly use a specific GMainContext, even if it often points to some default context. This makes the code easier to split out into threads in future, if needed, without causing hard-to-debug problems caused by callbacks being invoked in the wrong context.

Always write things asynchronously internally (using GTask where appropriate), and keep synchronous wrappers at the very top level of an API, where they can be implemented by calling g_main_context_iteration() on a specific GMainContext. Again, this makes future refactoring easier. This is demonstrated in the above example: the thread uses g_output_stream_write_async() rather than g_output_stream_write().

Always match pushes and pops of the thread-default main context: g_main_context_push_thread_default() and g_main_context_pop_thread_default().

Ensuring Functions are Called in the Right Context

The ‘right context’ is the thread-default main context of the thread the function should be executing in. This assumes the typical case that every thread has a single main context running in a main loop. A main context effectively provides a work or message queue for the thread — something which the thread can periodically check to determine if there is work pending from another thread. Putting a message on this queue – invoking a function in another main context – will result in it eventually being dispatched in that thread.

For example, if an application does a long and CPU-intensive computation it should schedule this in a background thread so that UI updates in the main thread are not blocked. The results of the computation, however, might need to be displayed in the UI, so some UI update function must be called in the main thread once the computation’s complete.

Furthermore, if the computation function can be limited to a single thread, it becomes easy to eliminate the need for locking a lot of the data it accesses. This assumes that other threads are implemented similarly and hence most data is only accessed by a single thread, with threads communicating by message passing. This allows each thread to update its data at its leisure, which significantly simplifies locking.

For some functions, there might be no reason to care which context they’re executed in, perhaps because they’re asynchronous and hence do not block the context. However, it is still advisable to be explicit about which context is used, since those functions may emit signals or invoke callbacks, and for reasons of thread safety it’s necessary to know which threads those signal handlers or callbacks are going to be invoked in.

For example, the progress callback in g_file_copy_async() is documented as being called in the thread-default main context at the time of the initial call.

Principles of Invocation

The core principle of invoking a function in a specific context is simple, and is walked through below to explain the concepts. In practice the convenience method, g_main_context_invoke_full() should be used instead.

A GSource has to be added to the target GMainContext, which will invoke the function when it’s dispatched. This GSource should almost always be an idle source created with g_idle_source_new(), but this doesn’t have to be the case. It could be a timeout source so that the function is executed after a delay, for example.

The GSource will be dispatched as soon as it’s ready, calling the function on the thread’s stack. In the case of an idle source, this will be as soon as all sources at a higher priority have been dispatched — this can be tweaked using the idle source’s priority parameter with g_source_set_priority(). The source will typically then be destroyed so the function is only executed once (though again, this doesn’t have to be the case).

Data can be passed between threads as the user_data passed to the GSource’s callback. This is set on the source using g_source_set_callback(), along with the callback function to invoke. Only a single pointer is provided, so if multiple data fields need passing, they must be wrapped in an allocated structure.

The example below demonstrates the underlying principles, but there are convenience methods explained below which simplify things.

/* Main function for the background thread, thread1. */
static gpointer
thread1_main (gpointer user_data)
{
  GMainContext *thread1_main_context = user_data;
  GMainLoop *main_loop;

  /* Set up the thread’s context and run it forever. */
  g_main_context_push_thread_default (thread1_main_context);

  main_loop = g_main_loop_new (thread1_main_context, FALSE);
  g_main_loop_run (main_loop);
  g_main_loop_unref (main_loop);

  g_main_context_pop_thread_default (thread1_main_context);
  g_main_context_unref (thread1_main_context);

  return NULL;
}

/* A data closure structure to carry multiple variables between
 * threads. */
typedef struct {
  gchar   *some_string;  /* owned */
  guint    some_int;
  GObject *some_object;  /* owned */
} MyFuncData;

static void
my_func_data_free (MyFuncData *data)
{
  g_free (data->some_string);
  g_clear_object (&data->some_object);
  g_free (data);
}

static void
my_func (const gchar *some_string,
         guint        some_int,
         GObject     *some_object)
{
  /* Do something long and CPU intensive! */
}

/* Convert an idle callback into a call to my_func(). */
static gboolean
my_func_idle (gpointer user_data)
{
  MyFuncData *data = user_data;

  my_func (data->some_string, data->some_int, data->some_object);

  return G_SOURCE_REMOVE;
}

/* Function to be called in the main thread to schedule a call to
 * my_func() in thread1, passing the given parameters along. */
static void
invoke_my_func (GMainContext *thread1_main_context,
                const gchar  *some_string,
                guint         some_int,
                GObject      *some_object)
{
  GSource *idle_source;
  MyFuncData *data;

  /* Create a data closure to pass all the desired variables
   * between threads. */
  data = g_new0 (MyFuncData, 1);
  data->some_string = g_strdup (some_string);
  data->some_int = some_int;
  data->some_object = g_object_ref (some_object);

  /* Create a new idle source, set my_func() as the callback with
   * some data to be passed between threads, bump up the priority
   * and schedule it by attaching it to thread1’s context. */
  idle_source = g_idle_source_new ();
  g_source_set_callback (idle_source, my_func_idle, data,
                         (GDestroyNotify) my_func_data_free);
  g_source_set_priority (idle_source, G_PRIORITY_DEFAULT);
  g_source_attach (idle_source, thread1_main_context);
  g_source_unref (idle_source);
}

/* Main function for the main thread. */
static void
main (void)
{
  GThread *thread1;
  GMainContext *thread1_main_context;

  /* Spawn a background thread and pass it a reference to its
   * GMainContext. Retain a reference for use in this thread
   * too. */
  thread1_main_context = g_main_context_new ();
  g_thread_new ("thread1", thread1_main,
                g_main_context_ref (thread1_main_context));

  /* Maybe set up your UI here, for example. */

  /* Invoke my_func() in the other thread. */
  invoke_my_func (thread1_main_context,
                  "some data which needs passing between threads",
                  123456, some_object);

  /* Continue doing other work. */
}

This invocation is uni-directional: it calls my_func() in thread1, but there’s no way to return a value to the main thread. To do that, the same principle needs to be used again, invoking a callback function in the main thread. It’s a straightforward extension which isn’t covered here.

To maintain thread safety, data which is potentially accessed by multiple threads must make those accesses mutually exclusive using a mutex. Data potentially accessed by multiple threads: thread1_main_context, passed in the fork call to thread1_main; and some_object, a reference to which is passed in the data closure. Critically, GLib guarantees that GMainContext is thread safe, so sharing thread1_main_context between threads is safe. The example assumes that other code accessing some_object is thread safe.

Note that some_string and some_int cannot be accessed from both threads, because copies of them are passed to thread1, rather than the originals. This is a standard technique for making cross-thread calls thread safe without requiring locking. It also avoids the problem of synchronizing freeing some_string.

Similarly, a reference to some_object is transferred to thread1, which works around the issue of synchronizing destruction of the object (see Memory Management).

g_idle_source_new() is used rather than the simpler g_idle_add() so the GMainContext to attach to can be specified.

Convenience Method: g_main_context_invoke_full()

This is simplified greatly by the convenience method, g_main_context_invoke_full(). It invokes a callback so that the specified GMainContext is owned during the invocation. Owning a main context is almost always equivalent to running it, and hence the function is invoked in the thread for which the specified context is the thread-default.

g_main_context_invoke() can be used instead if the user data does not need to be freed by a GDestroyNotify callback after the invocation returns.

Modifying the earlier example, the invoke_my_func() function can be replaced by the following:

static void
invoke_my_func (GMainContext *thread1_main_context,
                const gchar  *some_string,
                guint         some_int,
                GObject      *some_object)
{
  MyFuncData *data;

  /* Create a data closure to pass all the desired variables
   * between threads. */
  data = g_new0 (MyFuncData, 1);
  data->some_string = g_strdup (some_string);
  data->some_int = some_int;
  data->some_object = g_object_ref (some_object);

  /* Invoke the function. */
  g_main_context_invoke_full (thread1_main_context,
                              G_PRIORITY_DEFAULT, my_func_idle,
                              data,
                              (GDestroyNotify) my_func_data_free);
}

Consider what happens if invoke_my_func() were called from thread1, rather than from the main thread. With the original implementation, the idle source would be added to thread1’s context and dispatched on the context’s next iteration (assuming no pending dispatches with higher priorities). With the improved implementation, g_main_context_invoke_full() will notice that the specified context is already owned by the thread (or ownership can be acquired by it), and will call my_func_idle() directly, rather than attaching a source to the context and delaying the invocation to the next context iteration.

This subtle behavior difference doesn’t matter in most cases, but is worth bearing in mind since it can affect blocking behavior (invoke_my_func() would go from taking negligible time, to taking the same amount of time as my_func() before returning).

Checking Threading

It is useful to document which thread each function should be called in, in the form of an assertion:

g_assert (g_main_context_is_owner (expected_main_context));

If that’s put at the top of each function, any assertion failure will highlight a case where a function has been called from the wrong thread. It is much easier to write these assertions when initially developing code, rather than debugging race conditions which can easily result from a function being called in the wrong thread.

This technique can also be applied to signal emissions and callbacks, improving type safety as well as asserting the right context is used. Note that signal emission via g_signal_emit() is synchronous, and doesn’t involve a main context at all.

For example, instead of using the following when emitting a signal:

guint param1;  /* arbitrary example parameters */
gchar *param2;
guint retval = 0;

g_signal_emit_by_name (my_object, "some-signal",
                       param1, param2, &retval);

The following can be used:

static guint
emit_some_signal (GObject     *my_object,
                  guint        param1,
                  const gchar *param2)
{
  guint retval = 0;

  g_assert (g_main_context_is_owner (expected_main_context));

  g_signal_emit_by_name (my_object, "some-signal",
                         param1, param2, &retval);

  return retval;
}

GTask

GTask provides a slightly different approach to invoking functions in other threads, which is more suited to the case where a function should be executed in some background thread, but not a specific one.

GTask takes a data closure and a function to execute, and provides ways to return the result from this function. It handles everything necessary to run that function in an arbitrary thread belonging to some thread pool internal to GLib.

By combining g_main_context_invoke_full() and GTask, it is possible to run a task in a specific context and effortlessly return its result to the current context:

/* This will be invoked in thread1. */
static gboolean
my_func_idle (gpointer user_data)
{
  GTask *task = G_TASK (user_data);
  MyFuncData *data;
  gboolean retval;

  /* Call my_func() and propagate its returned boolean to
   * the main thread. */
  data = g_task_get_task_data (task);
  retval = my_func (data->some_string, data->some_int,
                    data->some_object);
  g_task_return_boolean (task, retval);

  return G_SOURCE_REMOVE;
}

/* Whichever thread this is invoked in, the @callback will be
 * invoked in, once my_func() has finished and returned a result. */
static void
invoke_my_func_with_result (GMainContext        *thread1_main_context,
                            const gchar         *some_string,
                            guint                some_int,
                            GObject             *some_object,
                            GAsyncReadyCallback  callback,
                            gpointer             user_data)
{
  MyFuncData *data;

  /* Create a data closure to pass all the desired variables
   * between threads. */
  data = g_new0 (MyFuncData, 1);
  data->some_string = g_strdup (some_string);
  data->some_int = some_int;
  data->some_object = g_object_ref (some_object);

  /* Create a GTask to handle returning the result to the current
   * thread-default main context. */
  task = g_task_new (NULL, NULL, callback, user_data);
  g_task_set_task_data (task, data,
                        (GDestroyNotify) my_func_data_free);

  /* Invoke the function. */
  g_main_context_invoke_full (thread1_main_context,
                              G_PRIORITY_DEFAULT, my_func_idle,
                              task,
                              (GDestroyNotify) g_object_unref);
}